By Tim Hunt
Innovation flourishing in Tri-ValleyUploaded: Apr 12, 2018
Attending the third annual Game Changer Awards at the Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton, I was struck by the amazing diversity of business enterprises in the Tri-Valley.
Presenting by the Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Council, awardees ranged from the valley’s long-time low-cost medical provider, Axis Community Health, to new start-ups, to Sandia National Lab, to a 100-year-old diary company and a brewery. Simply put, there was much to celebrate.
Sandia, a founding member of the group, received the well-deserved Founder’s Award that was presented by last year’s winner, Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s Buck Koonce. Sandia was a pioneer in transferring its technology to industry and that has accelerated since the two labs established the open campus to encourage the transfers.
The presence of two national labs, plus Lawrence Berkeley 40 miles away, is a unique advantage for the Livermore Valley. Los Alamos and Sandia headquarters are both in New Mexico, but Sandia is in the city proper, while Los Alamos located about two hours away, north of Santa Fe at 7,300 feet on the mesas. In Livermore, East Avenue separates the two labs.
The leadership group recognized two Game Changers from each of the communities with one selected as the winner. What was notable was three of the 10 honorees started at I-Gate, the incubator in Livermore.
One of those start-ups, the Altamont Beer Works, was honored for Livermore. It’s the first regional brewery in Livermore since Prohibition (note: Wente and Concannon wineries also survived those challenging days).
Dublin’s nominees were both old-time companies: Challenge Diary Products (100 years old) and Hexcel Corp that has been based in Dublin for decades. Challenge now delivers its diary products with solar-powered cooling units that was emission-free. It pioneered the first metal butter churn.
The winner was Hexcel, known for its aluminum honeycomb skis many years ago, but now a leader in composite materials for the aerospace and defense industries. Any commercial airplane you fly will have Hexcel materials in its body. The company can also boast that it made the landing pads on Apollo 11’s moon lander.
Danville’s nominees were the Crayon Initiative that melts down used crayons and then remanufactures them and donates the finished product to children’s hospitals. The founders started it in their kitchen.
The winner was Trov, an app that offers insurance for individual items that can be toggled on and off. The company, with headquarters in Danville, has offices in Australia and the United Kingdom, just completed its fourth round of funding.
One San Ramon’s nominee was IQUEST, a seven-year-old program that immerses high school students at Cal High in the working environment they are considering for their career. The program has been so successful that it’s now used across the district. That’s worthy of a shout-you, but the award went to the Bishop Ranch Intelligence Innovation Incubator, which located in the former corporate headquarters of PacBell (how’s that for a name from the past?).
The incubator offers a 12-week program to accelerate companies working on artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing and related technologies. Like many other Tri-Valley entrepreneurs, the leader, Les Schmidt has made his home here for years, but is done commuting over bridges or through tunnels.
The Pleasanton winner was Unchained Labs, headed by CEO Tim Harkness. The company just completed its fourth round (D round) of funding with $17 million. It produces tools to support biologics researchers. It has nine product lines, more than 180 employees and more than $50 million in revenue. Harkness told attendees Tuesday night, to the delight of Pleasanton Mayor Jerry Thorne and his council colleagues Karla Brown and Jerry Pentin, that the city is a “fantastic place to build a business.”
The second Pleasanton nominee, SafeTraces, is using cutting-edge technology transferred from Sandia to track products. Birthed in iGate in Livermore, the firm has nailed down $6.5 million in first phase venture funding. The biological barcodes can be applied in the field—say to date palms—when the stalk is harvested. The biological code travels in the dates so when they are pressed, it is present in the palm oil.
That’s just one example. The technology has been awarded the R&D 100 Award because it has a wide range of applications.
The bottom line (there will be more next week) is that innovation in the Tri-Valley and its economy is soaring. Plus, we also enjoy a great quality of life that’s even better if you can get to work without riding BART or braving I-680 or climbing on the ACE train.